after Adrian Matejka, Ernesto Mercer

I know it’s wrong to stare, but it’s Tuesday,
The express is going local, and this woman’s

Thighs—cocoa-buttered, crossed, and stacked
To her chin—are the only beauty I think I’ll see

For the next forty minutes. Not the train’s
Muttering junkie, who pauses a little too long

In front of me, dozing, but never losing balance.
Not the rat we notice scurry past the closing doors,

Terrorizing the rush hour platform. Not
Even these five old Black men, harmonizing

About begging and pride, about a woman
Who won’t come home. But skin, refracted

Light, and the hem’s hard mysteries. I imagine
There’s a man somewhere in this city, working

Up the nerve to beg this woman home, the sweet
Reconciliation of sweat on sweat, and pride

Not even afterthought. My own woman, who
I’ve begged sometimes not to leave, and begged

Sometimes please to leave, never has, also waits,
Uptown, in a fourth floor walk-up, in an old t-shirt

For me to make it back. She waits for me to come
Through jungles, over rivers, out from underground.

She waits, without fear, knowing no matter what,
I will make it home. And, God, there were times

I probably shouldn’t have, but did, and lived
To see this day, the junkies, rats, and thighs,

And I say, praise it all. Even this ride, its every
Bump and stall, and each funky body pressed

To another, sweat earned over hours, bent over moats,
Caged in cubicles, and after it all, the pouring

Of us, like scotch, into daylight. Dusk.
Rush hour. This long trip home. Praise it all.

The dead miss out on summer. The sun
Bouncing off moving trains and a woman

To love you when you get inside. Somewhere
In this city, a man will plead for love gone,

Another chance, and think himself miserable.
He’ll know, somewhere deep, he may never

Win her back. But he’ll know, even deeper,
That there is a kind of beauty in the begging

Itself, that all songs are love songs. Blues,
Especially. Praise the knowledge. Praise

The opening and closing doors, the ascent
Into light, heat, each sidewalk square, cracks

And all, the hundred and twelve stairs between
Lobby and my woman’s front door, the exact

Moment, I let in this city, let out this sweat,
And come to own this mighty, mighty joy.


Practicing Fade-Aways
after Larry Levis

On a deserted playground in late day sun,
My palms dusted black, dribbling
A worn, leather ball behind my back, this loneliness
Echoes from the handball courts nearby.
Nearly all the markings—free throw lane, sideline,
Center circle—rubbed to nothing.
A crack in the earth cuts across the schoolyard,
Jagged as a scar on a choir boy’s cheek.

Twenty years ago,
I ran this very court with nine other
Wanna-be ballers. We’d steal
Through peeled chain links, or hop
The gate, to get here: our blacktop Eden.
One boy, who had a funny pigeon-toed set shot
And a voice full of church bells, sang spirituals
Every time he made a basket,
The other boys humming along, laughing,
High-fives flying down the court.

And a boy we called ‘The Sandman’
For how he put you to sleep with his shoulder fake or drop step,
Over six feet tall in the tenth grade,
Smooth talker with an itch for older guys’ girlfriends.
One Sunday morning, they found him stabbed to death
Outside the Motel 6, pockets untouched,
Bills folded neatly against his beautiful cooling thigh.
And ‘Downtown’ Ricky Brown,
Whose family headed west when he was two,
But still called himself a New Yorker,
Who never pulled from less than thirty feet out,
And could bank shots blindfolded.
He went to Grambling, drove himself
Crazy with conspiracy theories and liquor,
Was last seen roaming the French Quarter, shoeless, babbling
About the Illuminati’s six-hundred sixty-six ways
To enslave the populace.

At sixteen, I discovered
Venice Beach, with its thousand bodybuilders,
Roller skates, and red thong bikinis.
I would stand on the sidelines and watch
The local ballplayers, leaping and hollering
Quicksilver giants, run and gun,
Already grown into their man bodies,
Funkadelic rising from a boombox in the sand.
Now, all I hear are chain nets chiming as I sink
One fade-away after another,
The backboard, the pole, throwing a long shadow
Across the cracked black asphalt.

What the nets want must be this caress,
This stillness stretching
Along every avenue, over high school
Gymnasiums and deserted playgrounds,
And the ambulance drivers drifting into naps
Back at the station house.
What the boys who ran these courts wanted
Was a lob pass high enough
To pull them into the sky,
Something they could catch in both hands
And hang from,
Long enough for someone to snap
A photograph, to hold them there,
Skybound. Risen.


Trouble Man

It’s the bone of a question
Caught in your throat,
Pre-dawn sighs of the day’s
First traffic, shoulders like
Fists under your skin. Say
It’s raining this morning,
You’ve just left a woman’s
Blue musk and duvet,
To find devil knows what
In the world, your wet collar,
Too thin jacket, no match
For pissed off sky gods.
And say this car pulls near,
Plastic bag for passenger
Side window, trading rain
For music. Marvin Gaye.
And maybe you know
This song. How long
Since a man you called father
Troubled the hi-fi, smoldering
Newport in hand, and ran
This record under a needle?
How long since a man’s
Broken falsetto colored
Every hour indigo? Years
Since he drifted, dreaming
Into rice fields, stammered
Cracked Vietcong, gunboats
And helicopters swirling
In his head. Years since
His own long walks, silent
Returns, and Marvin’s
Many voices his only salve.
He came up harder than
You know, your father.
Didn’t make it by the rules.
Your father came up hard,
Didn’t get to make no rules.
Graying beard, callused hands,
Fingernails thick as nickels,
You were the boy who became
That man, without meaning
To, and know now: A man’s
Life is never measured
In beats, but beat-downs,
Not line breaks, just breaks.
You hear Marvin fade down
The avenue and it caresses you
Like a brick: Your father,
Marvin, and men like them,
Have already moaned every
Book you will ever write.
This you know, baby. This
You know.